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June 11th - 15th – General J.E.B. Stuart’s Ride Around McClellan
The general strategic plan that rapidly was taking form in the mind of Gen. Robert E. Lee contemplated an offensive against that part of McClellan's force north of the Chickahominy. Little was known of the position of the right wing of the Army of the Potomac. A reconnaissance in force was the means of ascertaining the facts. Cavalry would have to undertake the reconnaissance and should they find that the Federals were using the road that led to McClellan's right, an opportunity might offer of destroying Union wagon trains. On June 10, Brig. Gen. J. E. B. Stuart, then 29 and in command of all the cavalry, was called to Army headquarters. As Stuart was ushered into the office of General Lee, he was told by General Lee of the design for an offensive north of the Chickahominy, and of the importance of ascertaining how far the enemy's outposts extended on the ridge. The next day, June 11th, a courier handed Stuart his instructions in Lee's autograph. Caution was enjoined in these words: "You will return as soon as the object of your expedition is accomplished, and you must bear constantly in mind, while endeavoring to execute the general purpose of your mission, not to hazard unnecessarily your command or to attempt what your judgment may not approve”. Three times that important word "expedition" was to be read in these instructions! The affair was being lifted above the level of scouting, even of armed reconnaissance.
Stuart proceeded at once with his plans. Fitz Lee, the General's nephew was now Colonel of the First Virginia Cavalry must lead his regiment on the "expedition," along with four companies of the Fourth. The second son of Gen. R. E. Lee "Rooney" Lee, must take part of his Ninth Virginia Cavalry and two squadrons of the Fourth." Lt. Col. Will Martin, of the Jeff Davis Legion, must pick 250 of his command, and of the South Carolina Boykin Rangers. The Stuart Horse Artillery could supply a twelve-pound howitzer and a rifle gun, under Lt. "Jim" Breathed. The members of Stuart's staff must go: Heros von Borcke, a Prussian officer and John S. Mosby likewise must accompany the expedition. Stuart had sensed the daring and initiative of the former adjutant, and had retained him at headquarters. Stuart chose them on the 11th but did not notify them. The secrecy which (Lee) enjoined on him was respected to the letter. All the cavalry heard was a vague rumor that something was afoot.
At 2 A.M. on the 12th, Stuart, in the cheeriest of moods, awakened his staff. "Gentlemen, in ten minutes," he announced, "every man must be in the saddle." Scouts were sent out; Stuart mounted with "Rooney" Lee and rode to nearby Hickory Hill, the home of Mrs. Lee's family and of Col. Williams C. Wickham. Back at camp before day, Stuart had a few rockets sent up as signal for the start, but permitted no reveille. When men and beasts were fed, the column got under way again. The moment it turned toward the East, a stir went down the files: the men had suspected that McClellan's flank was their objective, and now they knew it. Stuart left the road and called the field officers in council. Not more than five feet ten in height, wide of shoulder and manifestly of great physical strength, he had a broad and lofty forehead, a large, prominent nose with conspicuous nostrils. His face was florid; his thick, curled mustache and his huge wide-spreading beard were a reddish brown. Brilliant and penetrating blue eyes, now calm, now burning, made one forget the homeliness of his other features and his "loud" apparel. The Army boasted nothing to excel that conspicuous uniform - a short gray jacket covered with buttons and braid, a gray cavalry cape over his shoulder, a broad hat looped with a gold star and adorned with a plume, high jack boots and gold spurs, an ornate and tasselled yellow sash, gauntlets that climbed almost to his elbows. His weapons were a light French saber and a pistol, which he carried in a black holster. On the pommel of his regulation saddle an oilcloth overall was strapped; behind the saddle was a red blanket wrapped in oilcloth. When he gave commands, it was in a clear voice that could reach the farthest squadron of a regiment in line.
When the force came in sight of Hanover Court House, horses and men were observed. Scouts reported that the enemy was there. Quickly it was decided that Fitz Lee should swing around on a detour to the right . . .back into the Courthouse road, South of the village. The Federals would be cut off and would be forced either to surrender or else to scatter where they might be caught. Fitz Lee and the First regiment slipped off; the Ninth Virginia and the Jeff Davis Legion waited impatiently. At length, fingering his watch, Stuart gave the word. Scouts near the Courthouse came out from their hiding places. The Southerners prepared to charge. It was too late. The "blue birds" had taken alarm and had fled under cover of the dust they raised.
"Rooney" Lee's Ninth Virginia was now in front. Its advance squadron was under the eye of the regimental Adjutant, Lt. W. T. Robins, a daring man. As the Federals had escaped down the Courthouse road, that approach to the village of Old Church was certain to be guarded. Stuart accordingly left the. highway about a mile below Hanover Courthouse and, turned South. The march was hard and rapid. Enon Church was passed. Then, near Haw's Shop, anxious eyes caught a glimpse of bluecoats. Some were ahead, some in a field on one flank. "Form fours! Draw saber! Charge!" Stuart commanded. Almost as uttered, his orders were obeyed. The Confederates swept forward-and (a) few videttes were surprised and captured. Some dismounted men were bagged. Rumors, coming presumably from the prisoners, were that the 5th was in front and would make a stand," but Stuart's column moved on and encountered no opposition. When the van approached Totopotomoy Creek, there was every reason to assume that the Federals would contest the crossing. Cautiously Stuart held back the main column, dismounted half a squadron, and sent these men forward as skirmishers. Once again the Federals had left the barrier unguarded.
It was now about 3 P.M. Old Church was distant only two and a half miles. Word came back that the enemy was at a stand and apparently was awaiting attack. Stuart did not hesitate. Straight up the road, the only avenue of approach, he ordered the column to charge. With a shout and a roar, the leading squadron, that of Capt. William Latane, dashed forward and threw itself squarely against the Federals. When the clash was over, Latane was dead, pierced by five bullets. The Federal Captain who had met him in combat was said to have been wounded badly by a blow from Latane’s saber.
Stuart was now fourteen miles from Hanover Court House He had established the main fact he had been directed to ascertain: there was no Federal force of any consequence on the watershed down which he had ridden. But should he return the way he had come? If alert, the Federals would burn the bridge across the Totopotomoy. In event they neglected that, they would watch the route by which the column had advanced, and could waylay the Confederates at or near Hanover Court House. Stuart could not skirt the village and strike for the South Anna as the bridge across the river had been burned; the fords were impassably high. Stuart reasoned if he turned back, danger and perhaps disaster, he concluded speedily, would be his.
Nine miles to the Southeast was Tunstall's Station on the York River Railroad, McClellan's main line of supply. A great achievement it would be to tear up that railway and have the Federal Army cut off from the base at the White House. Escape from Tunstall's would not be impossible. By turning South and riding eleven miles, Stuart could reach Forge Bridge on the Chickahominy. That crossing, his troopers from the neighborhood told him, had been burned but not beyond quick repair. At Forge Bridge, moreover, there was every reason to believe the column would be well beyond the left flank of the enemy. Besides, whatever the risk, there was a chance of striking terror into the heart of "a boastful and insolent foe. He would do it! There was not a shadow of misgiving on his face. Nor, when he found that his Colonels doubted the wisdom was there any hesitation. Quietly he picked his guides from soldiers who resided in the country. Then, turning to John Esten Cooke, he said: "Tell Fitz Lee to come along. I'm going to move on with my column." "I think," Cooke replied laughingly, "the quicker we move now the better." "Right! Tell the column to move on with a trot."
Stuart touched the flank of his horse and was off. He was relishing every moment of the drama he was shaping. "There was something of the sublime," he later wrote, "in the implicit confidence and unquestioning trust of the rank and file in a leader guiding them straight, apparently, into the very jaws of the enemy, every step appearing to them to diminish the faintest hope of extrication.” The road of this adventure skirted the Pamunkey River. Vessels were known to be at Garlick's Landing; wagon trains passed frequently; a guard was on the railroad at Tunstall's. At Tignor's house, two miles and a little more from Old Church, Frayser turned out of the road that led East to Piping Tree Ferry, and took the right fork toward Tunstall's Station. Stuart turned ere long to Cooke: "Tell Colonel Martin," said he, "to have his artillery ready, and look out for an attack at any moment. Stuart sought to close the column and to bring the artillery to the front. Breathed was most willing, but, at the moment, both the rifle and the howitzer were in mud from which all the lashing of the teams and all the tugging and swearing of the gunners could not extricate them. Further pulling at them settled them more deeply. "Gott, Lieutenant," said a sergeant of German stock, "it can't be done!" Then he eyed the ambulance which, with its treasured keg of liquor, had been captured in the camp at Old Church. "But, the sergeant added, "yust put dat keg on der gun, Lieutenant, und tell the men they can have it if only they vill pull through!" In a moment, the gunners sprang into the knee-deep mud and, with one mighty effort, lifted the piece to dry ground." While they were wrestling with the pieces, Frayser dashed up to Stuart from the direction of Tunstall's Station and reported that one or two companies of Federal infantry were guarding the station. Swiftly he advanced the head of the column within striking distance and then ordered: "Form platoons! Draw saber! Charge!"
Down swept the cavalry at a thunderous gallop. The Federals, too few to resist, scattered almost instantly. Some were captured. Others fled to the woods. Immediately, designated Confederates began to tear up the railroad. Redmond Burke hurried off to set fire to the bridge across Black Creek. His fellow scouts proceeded to chop down the two telegraph poles nearest the station. Now, above the chatter of the troopers and the sound of the axes on the telegraph poles, there came a shrill whistle. A train was approaching. Quickly the orders were given. Lieutenant Robins ran to a near-by switch and tried to throw it, so that the train would run into the siding, but he had no success in hammering at the heavy lock. Such obstructions as near-by men could find at the moment they hurled on the track. All this was swift work, not well done. Before the slowest of the cavalrymen could get to cover, the train came in sight-a locomotive and a string of flatcars loaded with soldiers. Then, nervously, one excited trooper in ambush fired his pistol." The engineer heard it and immediately put on full steam. All along the right of way, Southerners' pistols rang out. Startled Federals on the train dropped from wounds or threw themselves face down on the flatcars to escape the fire. Will Farley seized von Borcke's rifle, spurred his horse till it caught up with the locomotive and shot the engineer. The train continued on its way. A moment more, and it was out of range.
It was now close to nightfall. As rapidly as might be, the mules were unhitched. Then the wagons loaded with grain and coffee, were set afire. While this was being done, something more than an hour after the train had passed, the squadrons from Garlick's Landing arrived. Their commander, Capt. O. M. Knight, reported that he had destroyed two schooners and many wagons loaded with fodder. Not to be outdone by this feat, the rearguard presented the General with twenty five prisoners who had surrendered. As the bogged guns also had come up, the column started at once for the Chickahominy. Stuart had no report of pursuit but he knew that the reflection of the fires and the report of the trainmen would bring quickly toward Tunstall's Station a powerful force. Now it did not seem so probable that retreat and return would be unmolested. A bright moon had risen, one day past the full, and lighted the bad road, but the column was strung out almost back to Tunstall's. Midnight came before the exhausted artillery horses dragged the pieces to Talleysville. From that point, the distance to Forge Bridge on the Chickahominy was less than seven miles. Long as each minute seemed, the night was almost ended. If all went well, the winding, marshy river soon would lie between the Confederates and their pursuers. Hopeful as was the outlook, the ride from Talleysville to the river was the hardest part of the long, long march. The Ninth Virginia, in advance, became separated and made Stuart acutely anxious. When he relaxed after finding that the Ninth was ahead, he became so sleepy that he, the tireless man who never knew exhaustion, put one knee over the pommel of the saddle and nodded often. Sometimes he lurched so far that John Esten Cooke had to ride by his side to keep him from falling off. Like Stuart, the whole column dragged. Troopers snatched sleep, horses staggered. Fortunately, there was no alarm. If Federals were in pursuit, the rearguard caught no glimpse of them.
The moon was just being dimmed by a faint light in the East when Jonas Christian led the head of the Ninth Regiment down toward the blind ford. He was at the ford, but it had a different appearance from the easy crossing he had known. In front of him was a wide, swift and evil-looking stream that extended far beyond its banks. The placid Chickahominy was an angry torrent, the ford might be a death trap. Col. "Rooney" Lee, the first officer of rank to arrive at Sycamore Springs, stripped quickly and swam into the stream to test it. Strong and powerful though he was, he had to battle to escape being drowned or swept down. stream. "What do you think of the situation, Colonel?" John Esten Cooke asked when the Colonel pulled himself ashore. "Well, Captain," replied the half-exhausted swimmer, with all the courtesy of his stock, "I think we are caught." That was the feeling of the soldiers. The jig was up! Some of the boys, reconciled to the worst, merely stretched out on the ground. They were too weary to stand, but almost intuitively, they held their bridle reins over their arms, in order to be ready were an alarm sounded. Other exhausted cavalrymen sat glumly on the ground. Gloom was written darkly on the face of all of them. At that moment Stuart rode down to the ford. He had little to say. Carefully he surveyed the stream then he stroked his beard with a peculiar twist that his staff officers noticed he never employed except when he was anxious. He looked dangerous. Axes were sent for. Trees were felled in the hope that the men might clamber over them . . , but they were too short to bridge the swollen stream. A rumor was afloat that Federal infantry in large force were close at hand. Stuart decided that his one hope was to patch together a crude bridge. He directed the men who already had swum to the right bank - some thirty-five -to make their way downstream to the site of Forge Bridge one mile below Sycamore Springs. From the north bank, a narrow stream of considerable depth led to an island. At the western end of the island was a swampy ford which could be used in emergency.
All Stuart's information had been that the main bridge across the north channel was destroyed but that enough remained to make possible a reconstruction. He found conditions as described. The stream was swift but the channel was narrower than at the Sycamore Springs ford. Stone abutments on either side were intact. A skiff was found on the bank and was moored midstream by a rope tied to a tree. From a large abandoned warehouse near at hand, boards were stripped. Troopers and prisoners hustled several of these to the bank, placed the ends aboard the skiff, as if it were a pontoon, and in that way made a narrow if treacherously unstable bridge. Across this, one by one, troopers made their way with their right arms carrying their saddles and with the left holding the reins of horses that swam on the downstream side of the bridge. This proved too slow and would not permit of the passage of the guns. Burke accordingly decided to try to secure the main timbers of the warehouse and to see if they were long enough to span the river from the abutments. Battering-rams knocked down the frame of the structure. Tired men shouldered the old uprights and brought them to the streamside. From the skiff, they were pushed across and lifted up toward the abutments. Stuart watched all the while and counseled with calm cheer. Ere long, the dangerous look faded from his face. He began to hum a tune. His eye told him the timbers were long enough, but even he must have held his breath when the long beam rested safely on both banks with few inches to spare. Quickly the bridge was floored. Over it the men made their way. The rearguard was drawn in. Fitz Lee, listening and watching the road, left five men to fire the bridge and then he, too, crossed to the island. By the time the rear of the column had passed, the flames were crackling. Then - as if to add the perfect touch to the climax - a little knot of Federals appeared on the north bank and opened fire. The margin of escape was ten minutes. Time consumed in building the bridge was three hours.
When on the right bank of the Chickahominy, Stuart was thirty-five miles from Richmond. The return meant tedious riding for the troopers and more suffering for their worn horses, but it was nothing compared with what had been endured on the other side of the river. Stuart hurried on to report. On the morning of June 15, forty-eight hours from the time he had left the Winston Farm at the beginning of the ride, he reported to General Lee. When Stuart rode in to see the Governor, a crowd gathered in front of the Executive Mansion and demanded a speech. Stuart duly appeared "and acknowledged the compliment paid him in a few remarks full of spirit and good cheer." The early chronicler of this incident added: "Seeing a manifest desire on the part of the people to make for him an ovation, the General then mounted his charger and galloped off amid the shouts of the crowd, which by this time had increased to more than a thousand persons." Stuart's satisfaction was as boyish as his feat had been extraordinary. Stuart became the hero of his troopers and one of the idols of the public. Lee's confidence in him and his confidence in himself were confirmed. What was not less important, the cavalry was shown to be as trustworthy as the infantry.
"That was a tight place at the river, General," John Esten Cooke said to Stuart when it was all over. "If the enemy had come down on us, you would have been compelled to have surrendered." "No," answered Stuart, "one other course was left." "What was that?" "To die game."